One of Kent Hrbek’s favorite photos is of him and his agent, Ron Simon. Both are sitting behind a table during a news conference with matching grins the day that the Twins first baseman inked a five-year, $5.9 million contract that was groundbreaking at the time.
In 1980, Nolan Ryan had become the first baseball player to earn $1 million in a season. St. Paul native Dave Winfield cashed in later that year, signing a 10-year contract with the Yankees that eventually paid him $23 million.
The movement hit this market Feb. 12, 1985, when Hrbek’s deal was consummated, making him the first million dollar athlete on a Minnesota team at the age of 24.
It’s little wonder why Hrbek’s and Simon’s pearly whites were big and bright that day.
“I’ve got that picture on a wall in my basement,” said Hrbek, who also mocked the mustache he wore at the time. “One of the only few newspaper articles I hung on the wall.”
Angels star Mike Trout was scheduled to earn $36 million this season before the coronavirus swept the globe and forced spectator sports to shut down. That means he would have made just over $1.1 million every five games — a stunning reflection of how the game has grown since Hrbek’s era.
But Hrbek didn’t care about being a trailblazer after batting .311 with 27 homers and 107 RBI in 1984 and finishing second in AL MVP voting to Detroit reliever Willie Hernandez. Born in Minneapolis and raised in Bloomington, he just wanted to remain in the Twin Cities, play baseball, drink beer and fish.
Hrbek and Simon were days away from heading to arbitration, with Hrbek requesting a $1.1 million salary for 1985. But the sides were working on something more substantial.
“I just told Ron that I wanted to stay here and do what he could,” Hrbek said. “I told him, just get me something that was comparable to everyone else. I had some pretty good numbers from 1982 to ’85.
“Ron said, ‘You hit the fastballs, I’ll take care of whatever I can from the money aspect.’ ”
The result was a long-term deal that put a big piece in place — literally and figuratively — as new Twins owner Carl Pohlad began assembling a roster that would win World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. Hrbek’s deal included a 13-team no-trade clause, and some of his salary was deferred.
The Vikings, for comparison, didn’t pay a player $1 million for one season until 1989, with Tommy Kramer.
Hrbek’s deal paid him $560,000 in 1985 and then $1.06 million, $1.31 million, 1.41 million and $1.56 million the next four seasons.
Not bad for a kid from 91st and 4th. He went on to sign another five-year contract with the Twins in 1990 worth $14 million. That time, Hrbek was in a bowling league at West Side Lanes in St. Paul when he learned his deal was done. That contract took him up to his retirement following the 1994 season, having spent all 14 years of his career playing in his hometown.
“I told Ron to just make sure I’m comfortable when I’m done playing so that I will be able to go through the McDonald’s drive-thru without having to worry to pay and I can buy a dozen minnows after I get through there,” Hrbek said. “That’s pretty much how I live my life today. I’m pretty simple, people know that.
“But I didn’t want to play anyplace else.”